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How safe are smart motorways?

“Jason and Alexandru’s death’s prove these motorways are anything but smart”, said Claire Mercer who recently lost her husband in an accident on the M1, after the 16-mile stretch was converted into a ‘smart motorway’. He is the fourth person to be killed in a live lane on the M1 in the last ten months.

Highways England claims that their recently introduced ‘Smart Motorways’ have improved the safety of British motorways. The new roads use technology as a way of minimising congestion and easing the flow of traffic.

The organisation claims that a risk assessment of the design for the latest generation of smart motorways estimated an 18% reduction in risk, compared to a conventional motorway.

Mike Wilson, Chief Highway Engineer, also asserted that there was evidence proving that smart motorways were improving safety as ‘the first nine of the latest generation of smart motorways have reduced casualty rates by more than 25%’.

Despite their claims to increased safety, their own report highlights that drivers are three-times more likely to break down in a live lane when the hard shoulder has been removed.

Following the modification of a 16-mile stretch of the M1, four people have been killed within 10 months of each other after being hit by oncoming traffic, as there was no hard shoulder to protect them. Jason Mercer was one of the recent victims as he, and another driver Alexandru Murgeanu, were hit by a lorry after thier car broke down in the new ‘live lane’.

Following the introduction of the live lane, Highways England implemented the ‘Red X’, a signal for drivers to switch lanes if an immobilised vehicle appeared. However, on the day that Mercer and Mergeanu were caught stranded, no ‘Red X’ warning appeared according to reports.

Prior to this incident, a 62-year-old woman and an 83-year-old man were also killed in smart motorway-related incidents. The cause of all four deaths was their failure to reach an Emergency Relief Area on the 16-mile Northbound stretch of the M1 after the hard shoulder was scrapped.

Jason Mercer’s wife Claire is now suing Highways England for corporate manslaughter, claiming the organisation failed to provide sufficient protection. A report found that on average it takes CCTV operators twenty minutes to spot stranded vehicles before closing the lane. “These tragic deaths show the systems have failed repeatedly,” said Claire.

Edmund King, President of the AA, was shocked at the findings. “It shows just how dangerous it can be breaking down in a live lane. Ultimately, until you are found by the camera you are a sitting duck. Expecting someone to wait in a dangerous and life-threatening position for 20 minutes is simply inexcusable.”

In 2018, Highways England admitted that the speed limits they imposed don’t necessarily reflect real-time traffic conditions. If congestion doesn’t build up as expected, motorists are sometimes told to drive 30 mph below the normal speed limit despite roads being clear.

Highways England plan to nearly double the smart motorway network from 416 to 788 miles by 2025. Claire Mercer argued that the government and the motorway company were in ‘collective madness’ as they failed to recognise the tragedy caused by smart motorways.

MP Tracey Crouch called for the roll-out of smart motorways to be halted amid concerns that the replacement of the hard shoulder posed safety concerns for drivers and breakdown services.

The Police also disagree with the system as the force has complained that there is nowhere to pull over reckless drivers. With no hard shoulder, officers are forced to drive for ‘miles and miles’ before apprehending culprits.
Work that involves driving is reported to be high risk. The transport and storage industry is one of the most high-risk industries in the UK. Inevitably, workers that drive for a living are at higher risk of being involved in a road accident and moving vehicles if one of the biggest hazards related to work fatalities.

The safety of smart motorways has been disputed by many. Highways England continues to defend the new road system, claiming it tackles the issues of congestion and improves the safety of motorists. However, given the alarming number of smart-motorway incidents in the past year, should something change?

The government offers this advice on how to drive on a smart motorway.